Archive for October 2018

Danielle Meitiv, right, walks home with her daughter Dvora Meitiv, 6, left, Rosie Resnick, 9, and her son Rafi Meitiv, 10. Photo: The Washington Post Danielle Meitiv waits with her son Rafi Meitiv, 10, for Danielle’s daughter Dvora Meitiv, 6, to be dropped off at the neighborhood school bus stop in Silver Spring. Photo: The Washington Post

Last Sunday at 5pm, a man walking his dog through the suburban streets of Silver Spring, just outside Washington DC, saw something that compelled him to take out his phone and call 911.

“There are two kids that are unaccompanied,” he said to the operator.

“And they’ve been walking around for about 20 minutes by themselves.”

The kids were Rafi Meitiv, 10, and his little sister Dvora, 6, who were on their way home from playing in a local park.

Their parents, Danielle and Alexander, are outspoken proponents of “free range parenting”, which advocates unsupervised, adventurous outdoor play and exploring. They had dropped them off at the park, and expected them to make their own way home that afternoon.

Police were quickly dispatched. They picked up the children and, acting on protocols in cases where they suspect child abuse or neglect, took the kids to Child Protective Services [CPS], the government agency responsible for child welfare.

It was more than five hours before the Meitiv parents, sick with worry, were eventually reunited with their kids.

“We finally got home at 11pm,” Danielle Meitiv posted on Facebook later, “and the kids slept in our room because we were all exhausted and terrified.”

Police and CPS, who had warned the Meitivs’ before over similar incidences, are still investigating, while the family says it will take legal action over the “unlawful seizure” of their kids.

News of this extraordinary turn of events quickly spread via the family’s social networks, garnering international media attention within a few days.

Part of the focus was on this particular family and their recurring clashes with the law over their parenting style.

But the incident sparked wider discussion too about just how much cultural and legal attitudes about childhood, safety and supervision have changed in America, and in other Western countries. Just a couple of generations ago, it is difficult to imagine that the sight of children walking home alone through their own neighbourhood would have caused surprise, let alone triggered the intervention of police and welfare agencies.

However, Fairfax Media reported in 2012 that police had told a Hornsby mother it was “inappropriate” for her 10-year-old daughter to catch a bus unaccompanied, and warned a Manly father that they would be filing a report after he let his seven-year-old son walk alone to a local shop. It was 400 metres away.

“Do we really want to punish people for letting their children play outside?” says Shelby Gull Laird, a parent and researcher who has worked in both the US and Australia and looked at shifting attitudes to outdoor play.

“Because all of the data seems to show that playing outside is really important and really healthy for children.

“I think we’ve sort of bubble-wrapped our children too much, in trying to protect them. And in that protection we may actually be doing them more harm than good.”

One of Laird’s projects looked at the curious phenomenon among many modern parents: cherishing fond memories of your own wild, roaming childhoods, but making very different choices for your kids, generally out of fear of something dangerous happening.

Many Generation X and Baby Boomer parents can recall afternoons or school holidays spent playing unsupervised games with other kids, roaming in parks or near creeks with little to encumber them except the promise to be home for dinner.  But there are few children today who do the same. Few even travel to school alone before they hit puberty.

The proportion of kids under 13 who live within a mile (1.6 kilometres) of school and walk or ride a bike there in the US has plummeted from 89 per cent to just 35 per cent since 1969. More than 40 per cent of Americans believe the government should legally require children up to the age of 12 be supervised when playing in a park.

The preliminary findings of a three-year Victorian study, described as the first of its kind in Australia, found almost half (48 per cent) of parents worried about their child’s safety when they were not with an adult because a stranger might approach them.

The VicHealth​ study, which is due to release its final research findings in October, also found this fear was enough to prompt about a third (36 per cent) of parents to avoid situations where their child went out unaccompanied.

But the opportunity to develop resilience, independence and confidence are just some of what children are missing out on when not allowed time alone to play or explore, say proponents like Laird.

“[Kids] learn better how to manage their own behaviour, they learn better how to manage risk taking,” she says. “That is pretty well studied by psychologists.”

Lenore Skenazy​, journalist and author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) blames a 24 hour news and media cycle obsessed with child harm, as well as industries that play on parents’ fears, for creating the perception the world is a more dangerous place now.

“It starts to feel like 24/7 our kids are in danger, because 24/7 they’re in danger on TV,” she told Fairfax Media.

“Once you believe that, seeing a kid outside looks like a crime about to happen.”

Despite high-profile cases that confirm every parent’s worst nightmare, trends in both America and Australia show violent crime is dropping, not rising.

Skenazy became the face of free range parenting in 2009, after she and her husband yielded to requests from their 9-year-old son to be allowed to take the New York subway home by himself. She was reticent, but equipped him with a ticket, spare money and a map. He made it home in one piece, proud and happy.

Since then she has written a column about the experience which went viral, then a book, a blog, and now speaks at conferences and corporations about her experiences and philosophy.

She says the fear of being picked up by police or welfare agencies is now another driver of parent caution. Cases like the Meitiv’s are rare but they happen. A mother in South Carolina was arrested in 2014 for letting her 9-year-old play in a park rather than wait inside the McDonalds where she worked.

“I spent the first five years convincing parents you could let your kids play outside and they weren’t going to be preyed upon by strangers,” says Skenazy. “Now I feel like I have to convince people they won’t be preyed upon by the police.”

But whether this more cautious, protective attitude towards children, from parents and society at large, is something to be lamented is not shared by everyone, of course.

“Better my kid is alive to visit a therapist when they turn 30 than to be enlightened and ‘free range’ but die all too young,” is how one droll commenter put it on the New York Times website recently.

Laird says it’s time to have a broader public discussion about what we now think are the acceptable ages to do things, and to try and reactivate communities, which once acted as eyes and ears on roaming children.

“What keeps happening is a neighbour or do-gooder keeps calling police… if you know your neighbours and you know everyone who lives around you, you would simply call the parents.”

Others have argued too, though, that a culture and child welfare system that is active about protecting children and responding to potential danger is something to value, not vilify.

Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which deals with serious cases of neglect and abuse, wrote in the Washington Post this week that much of the debate about free range parenting and the Meitiv family’s case missed the bigger picture.

“I find that parents are seldom accused of neglect because of a difference in opinion about their parenting style,” she said.

“I agree with many whose reaction to the free-range parenting story is to seek to have Child Protective Services less involved in parental decisions. But to get there, we need to create a community where the agency truly no longer is needed because all children are safe.”

We used to just be ‘parents’… what today’s different labels mean:

Free range: Emphasises unstructured time for kids to play, explore and be outdoors without parental surveillance, as well as doing (age-appropriate) household and life tasks on their own.

Helicopter: Pejorative term for parents who hover and monitor their children closely, plan all activities and swoop in at the first sign of risk, hurt feelings or what they perceive as a bad grade at school.

Attachment: Prioritises closeness between parent and child, advocating breastfeeding, co-sleeping, “positive discipline”, some supporters may be wary of long periods of separation, even child care in some cases, especially for small infants.

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Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is knee deep in budget deliberations. Photo: Eddie JimMajor superannuation changes have been ruled out by the Abbott government, just weeks ahead of the federal budget, further limiting options to rein in the estimated $45 billion deficit for 2014-15.

This comes on the back of Coalition promises to not change negative gearing and the GST, as well as a tumbling iron ore price, making the budget repair job even tougher.

Recent research from the Parliamentary Budget Office found that tax breaks for super account holders cost the budget $6 billion a year in lost revenue.

But Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg​, who is one of six ministers preparing the budget, insists super is safe.

“The Prime Minister’s made very clear that we will keep our commitments not to introduce any unexpected or adverse changes to superannuation,” he told Fairfax Media.

“I don’t think you should be expecting any big changes in this budget.”

He said superannuation was likely to be examined in a broader review of retirement incomes before the next federal election.

Mr Frydenberg, who was given the coveted Assistant Treasurer’s job in the December reshuffle, also said the Abbott government has learned from its first budget. That budget became bogged down in controversy, with many measures dumped or stuck in the Senate.

“I don’t think this year’s budget will have the shock and awe that we saw last year,” he says. “And I wouldn’t be expecting as much controversy around some of the measures.”

Mr Frydenberg, who holds Robert Menzies’ old seat of Kooyong in Melbourne, added that the razor gang was “very conscious that budget initiatives need to be able to win support  in the Senate”.

When asked if the group could be certain that this year’s measures would get the green light from the Senate and be controversy-free – given reaction to last year’s effort took the government by surprise – he replied, “you can never say for certain”.

“But one of the lessons from last year’s budget is the need to build support among key stakeholders for reform.”

He said this was particularly important in sensitive areas such as health. A large part of last year was spent debating the failed $7 GP co-payment.

Mr Frydenberg would not be drawn when asked to put a figure on what he thought “rich” meant today, noting the term meant “different things to different people”.

But he said Australia needed to be “very careful as a society” on answering the question, “because what sort of society do you want to create?”.

“We shouldn’t seek to denigrate people who achieve success.”

The Assistant Treasurer’s working week is currently dominated by briefing packs on budget proposals and meetings with fellow members of the “gang of six” – Mr Abbott, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, Treasurer Joe Hockey, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann​ and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison.

“There’s a real opportunity to interact quite closely with my colleagues,” he said.

He described the atmosphere in the room for this make-or-break budget for the government as “very collegial and the decision making is consensus-based”.

Budget meetings are notoriously long and can last into the night. But he said he has not suddenly become more popular with his colleagues who are currently appearing before the committee, arguing for more money for their portfolios.

As a tennis lover (he took a year off between school and university to play full-time in Australia and overseas), the Assistant Treasurer is not getting as much time as he would like at the moment to play sport.

But he is not complaining.

“No one in these jobs should be seeking sympathy. We’re all volunteers, not conscripts.”

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Job seeker: Single mum Emma Faulkner with sons Heath, 6, and Hayden, 2. Photo: James AlcockThe childcare sector is concerned that up to 100,000 Australian families may have to pull their children out of childcare because of tough new requirements about the number of hours their parents will need to work to get childcare subsidies.

The Abbott government is considering a Productivity Commission proposal that would require both parents working or studying for 24 hours a fortnight to qualify for childcare subsidies.

While those in the childcare sector are comfortable with government plans to streamline childcare payments in an upcoming families package, the idea of increasing work hours for parents is a sticking point.

Bodies such as Early Childhood Australia and major childcare providers are concerned that parents, including new mums trying to break back into the job market, will not be able to afford to keep their children in childcare. There are also concerns some childcare centres will close.

Parents are currently able to access 24 hours of the means-tested Child Care Benefit per child each week without having to meet a work or study test. The non-means-tested Child Care Rebate requires both partners to work or train “at some time” during the week, but there is no minimum number of hours required.

For Emma Faulkner, a single mother of Heath (six) and Hayden (nearly three) from Mt Druitt, childcare support enabled her to graduate from a nursing degree on Friday. Now she hopes it will allow her to look for and hold down a job.

Ms Faulkner says any activity test changes could make it harder for her to get work and keep her childcare spot for Hayden, while she gets her “foot in the door” through casual shifts.

While she may be eligible for extra protections as a single parent, the uncertainty about the new system is a worry.

“If I lose the childcare and I’m out of the childcare system, it’s very hard to get back in there.”

The childcare sector is worried that forcing parents to work more hours would hurt casual and seasonal workers and parents in areas with poor job opportunities, along with mums returning from maternity leave. According to an analysis of the Productivity Commission’s childcare report by advocacy group The Parenthood, about 16 per cent of mothers with young children work less than 24 hours a fortnight.

The Early Learning and Care Council, representing the country’s biggest childcare providers, said the idea that parents must work 24 hours a fortnight so their children could be in childcare was “fundamentally flawed”.

“If the benchmark is too high it was will actually discourage workforce participation,” its co-chairman Tom Hardwick said.

Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said the government needed to provide two days of care to children a week, regardless of their parents’ situation.

“Removing access to quality services for children, particularly those who are vulnerable, would significantly impact on children’s development,” she said.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison cautioned that “speculation” families will be forced out of childcare is “not based on any actual government proposals” and is “needlessly causing anxiety”.

He said it was important to remember that the Productivity Commissions’s recommendation “does not represent government policy” and that his new families package would include a specific safety net for disadvantaged groups.

But Mr Morrison also stressed that he wanted to see more parents working.

“Where families are able to engage in work or study or seek to be in work then it is only reasonable to expect them to do so, if they wish to access taxpayer-funded childcare subsidies.

“A something for nothing approach will not help turn around our current situation where we have far too many children growing up in jobless families.”

Mr Morrison is due to release the families package before the budget on May 12.

Any move that would cut benefits to stay at home mothers and rural and regional families is likely to earn criticism from some Coalition MPs.  ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja​ said it was a “legitimate concern if we don’t get the policy settings right”.

What we know so far about Morrison’s families package

In: multiple childcare payments rolled into one, payments based on a benchmark price with support weighted towards middle and low income families, parents will not be able to conscientiously object to immunisation and receive childcare payments.

Out: tax deductibility for childcare, a levy on big business to pay for the scheme, a benchmark price based on median childcare prices.

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Author S.J. Watson.

Author S.J. Watson.

Author S.J. Watson.

S.J. Watson’s debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, has sold 4 million copies in more than 40 languages and was 2011 British Crime Novel of the Year. The film adaptation stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. Watson’s new psychological thriller, Second Life (Text Publishing), follows a woman’s efforts to investigate her sister’s violent death.

The Swimming Pool Library Alan Hollinghurst

I read this one summer when I’d just moved to London. It was hugely affecting, partly because because I was working in Russell Square and socialising in the bars of Soho, where much of this book takes place. It almost felt as if I was living in the world of the book, or the book was showing me a glimpse of how life could be.

Becoming a Man Paul Monette

This memoir describes Monette’s struggle with his sexuality, his attempts to hide his same-sex attraction and the pain of unrequited love. I read it on the train on the way to visit my parents for the weekend, and on the Sunday before I came back to London I told them I was gay.

The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood

When I  read this I had no expectations and knew nothing about Atwood, but when I finished it I thought “Wow” and instantly decided I needed to reconnect with my desire to be an author. In many ways this book began the process that saw me write Before I Go to Sleep.

In My Skin Kate Holden

Another book I picked up randomly, not knowing anything about it, and another memoir, this time of Kate’s addiction to heroin and subsequent life as a sex worker. It’s harrowing, yet beautiful, and made me really think, not only about what writing can do, but also about the way society treats women who work in the sex industry.

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Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville.

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville.

Kate Grenville reflects on her mother’s life. Photo: Nic Walker

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville.

ONE LIFE: MY MOTHER’S STORY Kate Grenville Text, $29.99

When Kate Grenville’s mother, Nance, died, she left behind many beginnings of a memoir, never completed. I wonder if she suspected that her daughter – the author – might pick up the pen where she had left off. Or perhaps she thought her words might be of use when compiling family history. Grenville saw them as the start of something significant, and has used these fragments to write an account of her mother’s life.

Nance Russell was born in 1912 on a small farm near Gunnedah. Her own mother, Dolly, was trapped in an unhappy marriage arranged by her parents, and urged her husband to move often in search of greener pastures. When Nance was six they left the farm, and the following years moved from place to place, running hotels and groceries. Nance and her brother, Frank, were often boarded out or sent to stay with relatives, and by the age of nine, Nance had been the new girl at school six times. Grenville captures a childhood starved of love, with sparse moments when Nance is given something resembling affection, such as a brief stay with her Auntie Rose, who is the opposite of her own mother:

“She took Nance’s hand, smoothed it over the pastry, so smooth and silky. When you’re an old lady like me, she said, with children of your own, you’ll show them how to make a jam tart and you’ll say, My dear old Auntie Rose who loved me so much, she was the one showed me this.”

The itinerant child becomes an itinerant young woman, and in accordance with her mother’s wishes enters pharmacy as an apprentice, taking classes at the University of Sydney. One of only four women in a class of 80, she also works long hours at a chemist in Enmore and stays at a boarding house. The Depression is on, so Nance has little choice but to continue.

On a trip home she learns that her father has been having an affair, and for the first time understands something of her mother’s behaviour. “There’d have been other women, Nance realised now, heaven knew how many … every town, every pub would have had a woman who caught Bert’s eye. It was why Dolly was forever wanting to move. Another town, another hotel.”

Nance passes her pharmacy exams and marries a kind enough man who is a solicitor, Ken Gee, though she is oblivious to his own secret life. When it emerges he is a Trotskyite revolutionary, she realises her own marriage is not so different from her parents’, and that “not being loved was a bleak and chronic pain like a toothache”. She stays with him for their children and goes about finding other sources of happiness. She fights the (still recognisable) battle to balance her work and the needs of her family, and sacrifices much while expecting little.

Grenville has set herself a challenging task to write of someone so close – her own mother – without allowing her perspective as daughter to take precedence. At the end of the book she is not yet born, and only in the postscript does she mention her own memories of her mother. I was left wishing for more of this intimacy with the author, more of this deeply personal way of seeing. Wishing this were more a memoir and less a biography of her mother’s life. I read One Life feeling as though I were looking at a reflection of a reflection. And while Nance’s life was fascinating, and Grenville’s writing captures emotion in startlingly original ways, the book ends just as we begin to  bridge this distance.

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